Headlines this week may bring relief to those who champion physical books, as new figures reveal that e-book sales fall while sales of paper books grow – and the shift is being driven by younger generations.
More than 360m books were sold in 2016 – a 2% increase in a year that saw UK consumers spend an extra 6%, or £100m, on books in print and e-book formats, according to findings by the industry research group Nielsen in its annual books and consumer survey. The data also revealed good news for bricks-and-mortar bookshops, with a 4% rise in purchases across the UK.
While sales through shops increased 7% in 2016, there was a 4% decline in ebook sales. this is the second consecutive year that e-book sales have fallen, and only the second time that annual e-book sales have done so since monitoring sales began a decade ago.
The Publishers Association found that, in 2015, digital content sales, while physical book sales had increased from £2.74bn to £2.76bn. The Bookseller also discovered a similar result, finding in its own report about the five biggest general trade publishers in the UK – Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan and Simon & Schuster – that their ebook sales collectively fell 2.4% in 2015.
The shift was attributed to the explosion in adult colouring books, as well as a year of high-profile fiction releases, including The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. “Readers take a pleasure in a physical book that does not translate well on to digital,” the Publishers Association report read.
But Nielsen’s survey of 2016 attributed the increase in print sales to children’s fiction and to younger generations preferring physical books to e-readers. A 2013 survey by the youth research agency Voxburner found that 62% of 16- to 24-year-olds preferred print books to ebooks. The most popular reason given was: “I like to hold the product.” While Nielsen found that 50% of all fiction sales were in ebook format, only 4% of children’s fiction was digital.
Steve Bohme, research director at Nielsen Book Research UK, who presented the data on Monday ahead of this year’s London Book Fair, said young people were using books as a break from their devices or social media. “We are seeing that books are a respite, particularly for young people who are so busy digitally,” he said.
“Over the last few years we have seen a return to favouring print, partly from what is really successful, this year being non-fiction and children’s books,” he said. While adult colouring books were popular in 2015, last year saw books about healthy cooking and the latest Harry Potter sell well – which Bohme noted are “books that tend to translate better in the print form”.
The Nielsen survey contained another first: mobile phones and tablets overtook e-readers as the most common device used to read e-books, with readers favouring multifunctional devices over dedicated e-reader brands such as Kindle and Nook.
While ebook sales had plateaued, Bohme said it was important to remember that the figures were still higher than they were five years ago, holding a 25% share in 2016, compared with 26% in 2015 and 18% in 2012. The average ebook pricBooke increased to £7.
Bohme said ebooks sales would continue to decline in 2017, barring a new development in e-reader technology. “One thing we’ve seen is that when print sales surge, industry confidence in the print increases. If publishers are confident, they can have huge success,” he said. “If we have a couple of years of that success story, print sales will keep going up.”